One fall evening in 2012, Paula Corbin made the mistake of pulling into a Burger King parking lot to throw away some trash.
Medford Police Officer Stephen LeBert was watching her. He came up to Corbin’s car, flashed a light and asked for her license, she later told investigators.
This is a known drug spot, she said he told her.
Corbin assured LeBert that she would never be involved in drug activity — she was a retired federal immigration officer. He called her a liar.
LeBert demanded her badge. It was at home, embedded in lucite, she said. He laughed at her. She asked for his name, and he flashed the lights of his unmarked car.
“Do you believe me now? Is this proof enough?’’ she recalled him taunting her.
Corbin, who said she felt humiliated and helpless, filed a complaint the next day with the Medford police department. She included photos of her badge, her nameplate and her business card. Maybe now LeBert would believe her, she thought.
“LeBert was acting like a madman, unprofessional and unbecoming behavior from an officer,’’ she wrote in the complaint. “LeBert was totally harassing and threatening me this whole time, for what reason, I have no idea.’’
Before he let her go that night, LeBert did one more thing: He handed her a ticket for $25. Not parked in a marked space, it said.
Corbin’s complaint was added to LeBert’s thick personnel file. Medford Police Chief Leo Sacco said he told the now 31-year veteran of the force to watch how he acted.
According to the police chief and his colleagues, LeBert is an outstanding officer who does his job extremely well. He hustles every day like it’s his first.
But his file is littered with complaints that call him a bully.
The complaints accuse him of frequently stepping over the line into disrespect and anger. His personnel file include nine complaints dating back to 1991, ranging from episodes of rudeness to issues over whether he pulled his gun on someone wrongly. His superiors deemed most of them unfounded.
LeBert has been disciplined for other violations, but never for bullying. In fact, he earned an unofficial promotion in 2007 when he became a detective. Many of the complaints, which echo each other in describing the detective’s attitude, resulted in nothing but informal counseling on how to behave from his supervisors.
He doesn’t seem to have gotten the message.
LeBert earned national notoriety on July 26, when the off-duty officer jumped out of his truck and screamed at a driver who had gone the wrong way through a city rotary.
“I’ll put a hole right through your f—ing head,’’ he yelled at the driver, who recorded the encounter on a camera he had mounted to his dashboard.
The driver posted the video to YouTube. LeBert was placed on leave the day after the encounter.
Chief Sacco, who has led the department for 25 years, made no excuses for LeBert’s behavior. He should have done something sooner about LeBert’s attitude, he said, and maybe it wouldn’t have gotten to this point.
“The burden lies with me,’’ he said this week.
LeBert’s attorney, Kenneth Anderson, said nine complaints over a 31-year career is nothing exceptional. Yes, he may have overreacted that night at the rotary, but he was in fear for his life. The driver kept revving his engine and refused to stop.
“He never actually put his hands on this gentleman,’’ Anderson said. “The entire incident was 27 seconds measured against a 31-year career. I understand the optics aren’t good in the video, but I’m puzzled by the visceral reaction everyone has to paint him with such a broad brush.’’
Next week, LeBert will meet with internal affairs investigators to tell his side of the story from last month’s incident. Chief Sacco hopes to decide how to discipline him by the end of the month. LeBert could lose his job.
Before the complaints, there were plenty of commendations for the officer. LeBert was Officer of the Month in December 1987 “for his consistent standards of professionalism in appearance, demeanor and performance.’’
LeBert has received thank-you notes from grateful citizens. He helped change flat tires and walked an elderly woman to church in the snow. He chaperoned a high school dance in 1995 and was told that he “more than represented the Medford police in an exemplary way.’’
In 2007 he was assigned as a detective—which wasn’t an official promotion, Sacco says, but a recognition of his work.
By then, he was still receiving official commendations for things like perfect attendance, but didn’t get any more thank-you letters. Sacco said this might be because when people see the title “detective,’’ they think there’s no need to praise someone for doing the job he’s supposed to do.
“When he’s good, he’s on the top of his game, he gives 110 percent,’’ Sacco said. “Every day is like his first day on the job. He’s a hard charger, aggressive.’’
Former colleagues of LeBert’s, none of whom would speak on the record, said he was a fantastic officer, one of the best they’d ever seen. Not one had a bad word to say about him.
LeBert is no bully, Anderson said, but a beloved officer by both his colleagues and citizens he’s helped.
“If your house was broken into, if you had your mother or sister or husband or boyfriend or kid assaulted, he’s the one you want going to that call,’’ he said. “He’d take a bullet for people.’’
LeBert’s first few years on the job were rough. He followed in the footsteps of his uncle, Richard LeBert, and became a police officer in 1985. The two became partners, and sometimes found themselves in trouble.
Twice, Stephen LeBert was suspended for five days — the first time for leaving the police station when he and his partner heard a gunshot, and the second for missing court cases.
In 1992, LeBert was suspended for going outside of his jurisdiction. While on duty, he received a call from his wife, who said kids in their Woburn neighborhood had spit on her and were harassing her. His supervisor gave him permission to head home.
He was supposed to wait for the Woburn police to arrive, but he quickly took the situation into his own hands. The confrontation ended with one resident laying on the steps, bleeding from the top of his head, according to the investigation records.
In 2005, he was assigned to assist United States Postal authorities in the controlled delivery of a package believed to contain marijuana. LeBert was to assume a secondary role, standing watch of the delivery.
He ended up shooting at the suspects as they fled, records show.
The incident report states LeBert went out of his jurisdiction, and compromised the integrity of the scene when he removed a hubcap where his bullets hit. Investigators concluded that the shooting justified, but he was suspended two days for his actions surrounding the shooting.
As the years passed, a string of incidents involving LeBert and random drivers and residents began to form a familiar pattern.
A man pulled over by LeBert for speeding in 2008 filed a complaint after he said the detective was rude and abusive, asking if the driver was “dumb or just plain stupid.’’ His supervisors said the complaint was unfounded. LeBert was “advised … as to the tenor of his demeanor as it applies to an officer’s expected level of professionalism in dealing with the public.’’
In August 2014, a woman named Marjorie McMillan called LeBert “scary and a bully’’ after she said he screamed at her inside a Medford bank because her car was parked too close to his cruiser. She called him a “loose cannon’’ and a liar, saying he’s the reason “that the integrity of police everywhere is called into question.’’
McMillan met with the mayor and Chief Sacco about the incident last fall. Sacco says now that he couldn’t believe LeBert would behave this way. He allowed his opinions of McMillan — who he called a repeat complainer — to affect his judgement.
But when he saw the video of LeBert’s most recent outburst, there was no denying what happened.
“His file is a little bigger than most,’’ Sacco admitted. “You don’t need to degrade people. It’s always like he’d go a step further, and there’s no need for that.’’
McMillan said this week that she blames Sacco and LeBert’s other supervisors as much as she blames the officer himself.
“The people who cover up this behavior are just as responsible as the people who have this kind of behavior,’’ she said. “He has this short fuse and someone is going to get hurt.’’
LeBert seemed to be aware of his history: One driver wrote that when he threatened to file a complaint, LeBert told him to “get in line.’’
Michelle Sheehan called the Medford police in 2013 because her son was being bullied at school. LeBert answered the phone and was aggressive and irritated with Sheehan, telling her she was an overprotective parent. The call devolved into a screaming match.
After reviewing the telephone recordings, LeBert’s supervisors said he did nothing wrong.
“When I saw the report on the news [about the rotary incident], I laughed my ass off,’’ Sheehan said this week. “Before they even mentioned the name, I knew who it would be.’’
She doesn’t want to see Sacco taking the fall for his officer. LeBert is the one who has final responsibility for his actions, she said, not his bosses.
“I’d hate to have the wrong person get blamed because [Sacco] is the one who has the balls to speak out for it now,’’ Sheehan said. “It should be the officer who is reprimanded, not the chief of police.’’
Absent from LeBert’s file is anything about another incident that made the rounds in the media. A 2012 video shows Lebert blocking the view of a man trying to film his brother’s arrest. LeBert licks his finger to smear the camera lens, and tells the man his brother should lay down across some railroad tracks.
After seeing the video, Chief Sacco told LeBert to “act accordingly.’’
Four months later, LeBert confronted Corbin in the Burger King parking lot.
Nina Godlewski contributed to this report.